Difference Between Migraine and Cluster Headache

What's the Difference Between Migraine and Cluster Headache?

Experiencing any type of head pain can be traumatic and it's important to understand the type of headache that you have. Many people who experience migraines may confuse them with headaches, particularly cluster headaches. But migraines are not just severe headaches. They're a neurological disorder with many different subtypes. Continue reading to learn the difference between migraine and cluster headache.

Migraines affect up to one billion people worldwide. They affect men, women, and children with women being the largest group to suffer from them. One in five women will experience migraines on a regular basis. Migraines and cluster headaches are often confused and in the past the terms have been used interchangeably. But the two types are very different and require different types of treatment.

Types of Migraines and Migraine-Like Headaches

The difference between migraine and cluster headache:

  • Complicated Migraine. Approximately one quarter of migraine sufferers experience complicated migraines. This type of migraine comes with sensory disturbances or aura. These disturbances can include seeing black dots or zig zags, flashes of light, blind spots, and other visual changes as well as tingling in the hands or face.
  • Common Migraine. Common migraines tend to occur without aura and can sometimes be confused with other types of migraine. They're typically characterized by a throbbing or pulsing pain on one side, photophobia or sensitivity to light, phonophobia or sensitivity to loud sounds, nausea and vomiting. Often, any kind of physical activity makes the pain worse.
  • Silent or Acephalgic Migraine. This type of migraine is unusual in that it comes without pain. A person may experience dizzying aura and other types of visual disturbances, nausea, dizziness, and vomiting.
  • Hemiplegic Migraine. People who experience this type of migraine often develop weakness on one side of the body, not unlike a stroke. This weakness is generally accompanied by visual aura symptoms and a tingling or pins and needles sensation on one side. This migraine does not always include severe head pain and can last for a few hours up to a few days.
  • Retinal Migraine. Retinal migraines cause sufferers to temporarily lose vision in one eye. This type of migraine is most common in women that are in their childbearing years and can last from as little as one minute or as long as several months. Though it is usually completely reversible, it can be a sign of a more serious issue.
  • Ice pick headaches. This type of headache is characterized by a severe stabbing pain, as if being stabbed with an ice pick. The pain is sharp and often comes on suddenly. They're generally short and occur on the temple, orbit and parietal area of your head, where the trigeminal nerve is just past your eye and above your ear.
  • Cluster headaches. Cluster headaches bring intense pain and a burning like sensation at your temples, around and above your eyes and moving towards the back of your head. They generally encompass a large area and can provoke other symptoms like a runny nose and red or swollen eyes. They're often referred to as suicide headaches.
  • Cervicogenic headache. These type of headaches actually originate from pain in the neck or from a lesion in the spine. They are more severe and generally require some type of physical therapy plus medication to treat.

Migraines vs. Cluster Headaches: Similarities and Differences

The difference between migraine and cluster headache: There are actually some similarities between migraines and cluster headaches, which is why they may sometimes be confused with one another. Both migraines and cluster headaches typically have one-sided pain.

Congestion is also a common symptom that can occur in both types of head pain, although more typically with cluster headaches. Unfortunately, this is generally where the similarities end.

Both migraines and cluster headaches cause intense pain but they can act and feel completely different. To begin with, people with migraines generally experience nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound. Cluster headaches tend to come on more quickly than migraines as a lot of migraines come with aura or visual disturbances that can precede any pain. Cluster headaches also tend to depart more quickly than migraines. A migraine can last anywhere from 2 to 72 hours, but cluster headaches usually don't last more than three hours.

The difference between migraine and cluster headache: The pain can be severe for both types, but cluster headaches tend to be even more severe than migraines, with a sharp burning pain that comes on suddenly but decreases quickly. In addition, people with cluster headaches tend to be agitated and restless, whereas migraine sufferers prefer a quiet, dark space. Cluster headaches generally come in cycles or patterns but migraines may have no predictable pattern and can occur one time or many times over a monthly cycle. With cluster headaches, it's rare to get just one. Patients will usually get several in a series and can get them regularly for weeks or months at a time.

The difference between the two types also extends to the sexes. Women tend to get more migraines than men, with men experiencing more cluster headaches than women. All in all, about 37 million Americans can suffer from migraines compared to about one million cluster headache sufferers.

Understand the Factors and the Difference Between Migraine and Cluster Headache

Many factors can trigger migraines such as hormones, sleep disturbances, missing meals, certain medications, bright sunlight, and fluorescent lights. The cause of cluster headaches, on the other hand, is still relatively unknown. While both migraines and cluster headaches can cause severe pain, the causes and cures of both are different.

It's important to have the correct diagnosis to find relief because the same medications that may help alleviate a cluster headache may do nothing to take away the pain of a migraine.

Make sure to see a doctor if you have chronic head pain or aren't sure which type of headache you have.

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Last Reviewed:
July 17, 2017
Last Updated:
October 25, 2017